What did you think of when you read those two words? I, for one, used to think of a classic Type-A executive: a male, dressed in a navy blue suit, whose heart couldn't handle the pressure and stress of his high-powered job, so one day, while alone in his corner office, he loses his breath and gets all gaspy in his beautiful, leather desk chair.
That couldn't be farther from the truth. Instead, think of a bank teller or a cleaning lady or your mother-in-law with a pain in her jaw, a slight pressure in her chest and lightheadedness. She's having a heart attack. We women are just as prone to cardiac issues as men are; in fact, heart disease is the number one killer of women. It's not breast cancer or uterine cancer or anything else related to our feminine parts. It's heart disease, those words with masculine, cold connotations.
The women I met last year in Revere, Massachusetts, know that better than anybody. I interviewed about 20 of the 60 or so women who are involved in a revolutionary study called HAPPY Heart. In order to be part of the study, they have to have least two of the major risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, sedentary lifestyle and genetic history of cardiac issues.
Instead of just tossing pills at them with directives to lose weight and exercise in order to get to a better place, the study, led by Dr. Malissa Wood, is more like a comprehensive well-being program. Through weekly life improvement programs, exercise classes and one-on-one sessions, the participants realize that
your cardiac health is influenced, among other things, by how much stress is in your life, and more importantly, how you deal with it, the strength of your friendships and family connections (or lack of them); the quality of the sleep you do or don't get; your perspective on the world. In other words, defusing toxic relationships is as important to your heart as easing up on the butter in the mashed potatoes. And getting your house in order to receive guests is as key to good health as taking daily walks is.
I'm actually quoting myself there; I was honored to help Dr. Wood, a renowned cardiologist, write Smart at Heart: A Holistic 10-step Approach to Preventing and Healing Heart Disease for Women, her book about her comprehensive philosophy when it comes to treating patients. In Dr. Wood's world, in order to treat a heart, you have to look at the whole body, mind and soul, not just the numbers on the chart.
So it should come as no surprise that Dr. Wood is a runner. She ran the Boston Marathon as part of a charity while we were working on the book together; after discussing cholesterol and diabetes, we'd talk about training runs and race pace. Running is so much more than physical step after step, just like a heart is so much more than physical beat after beat. In Smart at Heart, we talk about connecting the emotional heart with the physical heart in order to obtain a whole, healthy heart. When I talk about running, I think about connecting those two parts of my heart as well. I wouldn't go the miles if my spirit and head didn't benefit more than my quads and calves. I run for the whole experience.
Although Smart at Heart isn't written in the same casual, girlfriendy tone we used in the Like A Mother books--it is a Harvard Health Publication, after all--it is filled with important studies and ideas that can bring anybody, step by step, closer to better heart--and overall--health.
But my favorite part is that we tell the stories of the women who are climbing that ladder towards better health. Originally, I thought I'd have nothing in common with the HAPPY Heart women. Many of them are struggling with problems much bigger than my reality has ever been. But our 20-minute interview slots often stretched to 45 minutes as they told me how much they loved Zumba, how they were surprised at how much they liked hummus when they for the first time, how they were so proud when they walked a mile. The confidence and strength they emanated as they told me their tales of success was as powerful as any finish-line tale--and, I hope, might just lead them across their own finish line one day.
A little shameless self-promotion for today's giveaway: we've got six copies of Smart at Heart ready to mail to six random winners. Although this book might not be right for you now, I am confident there's a woman--a mom, a friend, a neighbor, a teacher--in your life who could find a useful tidbit or three in it as they begin down the path of 2012.
In order to enter, you just need to tell us: what, besides running, do you do to take care of your heart? Could be nutrition, meditation (or attempts at it), defusing anger, simplifying your life...anything that brings you peace, happiness and health.